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Weekending in Prague

‘DO you fancy going to Prague?’ my long-suffering travel companion asked.  No problem.  We decided to give Prague the once-over in late August 2006.   Flights from Glasgow are easy to come by, especially when booked via the internet.  Likewise hotels.  We decided on the K+K hotel chain, an excellent choice based on our previous pleasant experience in Budapest.

St Vitus Cathedral

Prague is one of the few European cities to have been continually praised and admired so much over the centuries.  It was also fortunate in that virtually no damage was done to it during the second world war.  Two descriptions which have been given to the city are ‘Prague the Golden’ and ‘Prague of the Hundred Spires’.

In fact there are now over 500 spires and steeples.  Certainly, when we viewed the city from Castle Hill, the late afternoon sun was being reflected from hundreds of rooftops.  In 2002, Prague was one of the European cities that was worst affected by floods.  However, after an expensive clean-up and restoration, there is little evidence of the devastation that took place in the low-lying areas.

Our choice of the two K+K hotels in Prague placed us at the top end of St. Wenceslas Square, near to the statue of St.Wenceslas and the National Museum.  The K+K Fenix  is 100 yards up a side street, just past the Lap Dancing Club!  This was purely coincidental but the city of Prague does seem to be a popular venue for stag parties.

Next morning’s weather was dull but mild as we ventured into Wenceslas Square.  Wenceslas Street might have been a better name for the 760+ metre long, 60 metre wide expanse.  Nevertheless, the pavements and central reservation were very busy with pedestrians.  They all seemed to be in a hurry to get somewhere.

The square itself has a huge variety of good hotels, restaurants, shops, cinemas, cafes, bars and nightclubs, many of which are hidden away in passage-ways or short side-streets.  One-way traffic systems abound in the Czech capital and Wenceslas Square itself is off-limits to many vehicles.

Wenceslas Square was founded by Charles IV, the king of Bohemia and Roman Emperor, in 1348 as the Horse Market.  The square originally had two fountains, a gallows and a pillory but was only named Wenceslas Square in 1848 during the Czech national revival.  The equestrian monument to St. Wenceslas was erected in front of the museum in 1912.

National Museum

The 20-year-old philosophy student Jan Palach committed suicide in Wenceslas Square in 1969 by setting fire to himself.  A memorial to him can be seen in the centre of the square.  Altogether, 26 other people attempted suicide in the early part of 1969, seven of whom died.

Feeling peckish by 11 a.m. my doughty companion and I decided that it was almost lunchtime anyway and since we had heard that the art nouveau style Hotel Europa in Wenceslas Square was worth a visit, we did just that.  The hotel dates from the first decade of the 1900s.  The ground floor houses a café (complete with gallery) and a
French restaurant.

The sun was now beginning to break through the clouds and take away the slight chill of the morning.  An al fresco lunch outside the Europa on cast iron chairs at a cast iron table was just the ticket.  We hungrily gobbled up some thin slices of ham and cheese with some side salad, all washed down with a large cappuccino each.  Refreshed, we embarked on the next stage of our whistle-stop tour.  St. Vitus Cathedral here we come.

Both of us enjoy the adventure of travelling on the underground when we visit foreign cities.  Of the two metro stations on Wenceslas Square, Muzeum (sic) was the most convenient one for us.  Two of the three metro lines intersect at Muzeum.  The one we wanted was the A Line, the green one.  Like other European cities, the Prague metro system is efficient, clean and inexpensive.  The staff members are helpful and most can communicate in English.  We were warned to be on the lookout for pickpockets whilst in the underground but we were not aware of anything untoward like that.

The short metro journey to Prague Castle stops at Mustek, then Staromestaka and finally trundles through the tunnel under the Vlatva River to Malostranka.  From here, we took the path that climbs up to Prague Castle.  Castle Hill, like most areas of the city, is home to many small stalls, selling everything from ornaments to paintings and jewellery.  Those with an interest in photography are well catered for as there is a wealth of subjects of all kinds just waiting to be turned into photographic works of art.

Hradcany Square with the Matthias Gate

Hradcany Square is situated at the main gate to Prague Castle.  The square formed part of the processional route during the coronations of the kings of Bohemia.  Hundreds of tourists flock to the castle by way of Hradcany Square and today the whole area seemed to be particularly busy.

A sentry box and soldier are situated one on each side of the Matthias Gate. We both noticed that the uniforms worn by the soldiers were a different colour to the ones we had seen illustrated in a 2002 tourist guide to Prague.  The trousers and jackets worn by today’s soldiers were sky blue in colour as opposed to navy-blue jackets and grey trousers previously illustrated.

St. Vitus cathedral is housed in one of the castle courtyards.  St. Vitus is the patron saint of dancers and of people with nerve afflictions.  He is one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers who were a group of saints originating from the 14th century Rhineland.  It was believed that good health for a year could be obtained by anyone who danced before the statue of St. Vitus on his feast day.

This dancing mania became confused with the disease Sydenham’s chorea which later became known as St. Vitus’ dance but of the little known about the saint there does not appear to be any evidence that he danced to any great extent.

The cathedral really is a magnificent building from the outside, even for a blasé individual like me.  It reminded me of some of the Italian cathedrals where one just stands looking upwards in awe.  St. Vitus cathedral was only completed in 1929, the one-thousandth anniversary of the death of Prince Wenceslas, after a break of 510 years in its construction.

The main entrance to the cathedral is dominated by three bronze portals which were constructed as late as the 1920s.  Inside, a magnificent rose window, 34 feet in diameter, portrays the Creation.  Apparently the window is made up of almost 27,000 individual panes of glass.  The interior of the cathedral is on a grand scale, 400 feet long, 200 feet wide and 111 feet in height, with a total of 21 smaller chapels.

Although all of these are worth a visit, the highlight for me was the 280-step climb to the top of the South Tower.  From here we could marvel at the breathtaking views of the city and surrounding area.  A sign at the bottom of the stairs warns pregnant women not to attempt the long climb to the top.  It is easy to see why.  Apart from the very exhausting climb, the narrow, claustrophobic spiral stairway allows very little  room for people to pass each other.

Prague Castle and the Vlatva River

However, there was some consolation for us when we saw that even young, fit-looking people were red-faced and breathless when they reached the top of the tower.  Those of us who are long past middle-age had to have very numerous stops on the way up just to catch our breath.  Fortunately, there are bench seats around the inside walls at the top of the lookout tower.

Another impressive part of the cathedral is the Tomb of St. John of Nepomuk.  This  was carved between 1733 and 1736 and contains two tons of silver.  John was born around 1340 in the small town of Pomuk (later renamed Nepomuk) and rose to become vicar-general of Bohemia.  He refused to divulge the secrets of the Queen of Bohemia’s confessional, so the king had him tortured, bound with chains and thrown from the Charles Bridge into the River Vlatva in 1393.
One of the major restoration projects in recent years has been to the (Good King) Wenceslas Chapel. The walls of the tomb of St. Wenceslas have been decorated with over 1300 polished gemstones (jasper, amethyst, emeralds and others) as well as gildings and frescoes.  Some of the frescoes illustrate the Wenceslas legend.

The so-called Golden Lane is worth a visit.  This can be reached by making an exit from the cathedral through the baroque chapel of St. John of Nepomuk into St. George’s Square.  Originally the row of 18 tiny houses in the Golden Lane were home to the 24 castle gunners under a decree issued by Emperor Rudolph II in 1597.  Later the lane became settled by craftsmen, mainly goldsmiths and archers.

During the 20th century, writers and poets lived in some of the houses, notably Czechoslovakia’s most famous prose writer Franz Kafka.  He lived in No. 22 for almost a year.  Since the early 1950s the small, picturesque houses have been turned into quaint souvenir shops.  My companion, ever the shopper, kept me hanging around for almost 90 minutes as she explored all of the tiny shops.  Oh for a bench on which to sit!

My wife is not as much of a devotee to classical music as I but she will accompany me to most orchestral concerts.  Prague people like to advertise forthcoming concerts and when we saw leaflets about a concert which featured Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and, more importantly, Dvorak’s New World Symphony, we just had to attend.

Window in St Vitus Cathedral

The concert was performed by one of the three Prague symphony orchestras that same evening in the Dvorak Concert Hall which is inside the Rudolphinum Hall.  There was something special about listening to a live concert which featured one of the most famous symphonies by one of the Czech national composers.  The well-known slow movement was particularly evocative and spine-tingling, made even more so by the ornate grandeur and ambience of the inside of the building. 

Wenceslas had always remained true to his belief in Christianity.  Many powerful Czechs were opposed to Christianity as they thought that it threatened their privileges and powers. Wenceslas carried out many good deeds based on his faith and undertook the planning and building of churches.  Unfortunately, opposition from pagan nobility grew.  His step-brother Boleslas had been influenced by pagan beliefs and it was probably easy for pagan nobles to turn him against Wenceslas.  It was they who convinced Boleslas that he would lose succession of the throne and that he should murder Wenceslas.

Try to visit Prague soon, preferably in a sober state so that you have at least some memories of a great city.

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